Cantor Arts Center

Stanford University

Stanford, CA

(650) 723-4177



 

 

Pacific Arcadia: Images of California, 1600-1915

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Giant Redwood Trees of California, 1874, The Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA, gift of Zenas Crane

A groundbreaking exhibition exploring three centuries of the imagery of the California Dream will open at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University on April 21, 1999. Pacific Arcadia: Images of California, 1600-1915 is the first major exhibition to include the art of California in the stimulating interdiscliplinary analysis that has characterized American cultural studies in recent years. As the largest exhibition to be organized by the new Center for its opening year, Pacific Arcadia will be an integral part of the inaugural year's activities that will introduce the remodeled and expanded Museum to the public.

Pacific Arcadia will present a compelling array of masterworks by artists working in early California and will help set the tone for the lively schedule of exhibitions planned by the Center for the years ahead. After its presentation at Stanford, the exhibition will travel to the San Diego Museum of Art and the Joslyn Museum in Omaha.

The exhibition will include approximately two hundred and fifty objects, almost fifty of which will be paintings considered to be among the most important examples of the art of early California. Juxtaposing paintings that have served as icons of the California Dream with maps, prints, photographs and advertisements, the exhibition will investigate how idealized portrayals of California embodied the aspirations of those who had a stake in the development of the region, from the Spanish explorers of the seventeenth-century to the urban developers of the early-twentieth.

Tom Seligman, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Center says, "Pacific Arcadia is the most ambitious exhibition ever organized at Stanford and it will set a standard for years to come for the kind of scholarly, interdisciplinary exhibitions that the Center intends to present. It is fitting that this collaboration has led to the appointment of Claire Perry, curator of the exhibition, to the position of Curator of American Art at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford. It is also timely that this exhibition, about art and the humanities in California, takes place during the 50th anniversary of Stanford's school of Humanities and Sciences."

The objects in Pacific Arcadia will be divided into six thematic categories, according to the expectations they engendered in viewers:

Terrestrial Paradise - The first section of the show deals with the earliest known representations of California. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century European mapmakers, relying on the optimistic reports of the first expeditions to travel to the territory, often pictured California as a great island flanking the west coast of North America. This island shape encouraged associations with fabulous treasure islands described in contemporary literature. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, visual inventories made by artists travelling with Spanish, French and Russian expeditions helped perpetuate the idea of the region's natural abundance first introduced in the insular maps, picturing fertile valleys awaiting cultivation, rich stands of lumber, deep harbors and docile native peoples ready to help with development. This introductory section of the exhibition will present some of the earliest representations of California, made by expeditionary artists such as José Cardéro, Tomás de Suriá and Georg von Langsdorff, as well as the work of mapmakers Nicholas Sanson, Hubert Jaillot, Herman Moll and others.

The Golden Dream - When large quantities of gold were discovered in the Sierra foothills in 1848, California seemed at last to have fulfilled the expectations of early explorers and colonial administrators. Paintings, drawings and prints of activities in the gold fields celebrated the successes of lone prospectors and mud-caked "argonauts," equating the American ideals of personal freedom, economic success and democratic government with the society of gold rush California. The objects in this section of the exhibition, including paintings by Ernest Narjot and Alburtus Del Orient Browere, prints by Currier and Ives and photographs by Carleton Watkins, will revolve around a grand centerpiece: "Saturday Night in the Mines," a ten by sixteen-foot oil painting by Charles Christian Nahl, one of the most important works of the California gold rush period.

Cornucopia of the World - Sponsored by patrons enriched by the gold rush and its subsidiary industries, artists in California turned to pastoral themes during the mid-1850s and afterward. With the days of easy placer mining long finished, business leaders in the state hoped to encourage agricultural enterprise and permanent settlement. Landscapes of California's rich central valley, still lifes of outsize local produce and portraits of upstanding middle class residents played an important role in shifting the focus of the American public from the rough and ready days of the gold rush to more conventional types of development. Such images, by inviting comparisons with the countryside and rural communities of New York, Massachusetts and other eastern states, worked to align California with Jeffersonian agrarian ideals and the cultural traditions of the rest of the nation. Paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Samuel Marsden Brookes, and John Ross Key will be featured in this section.

Rush for the Wilderness - Since the earliest days of the republic, Americans had expressed their pride in the magnificence of the national landscape, often claiming that it had no rival in Europe or, indeed, anywhere. Portrayals of California's natural wonders--the Yosemite Valley, the noble Sierra Nevada and groves of giant redwoods--gave new weight to this argument and strengthened the bonds between California and a nation that defined itself through the presence of a vast frontier. Images of spectacular mountain ranges and immense, glacier-carved valleys alluded to the timeless accumulation of natural resources and demonstrated that the state still offered extraordinary opportunities to newcomers. In the discourse of manifest destiny, such images asserted that California could still be considered the Pacific prize - the providential reward bestowed on those who had conquered the great expanse of the continent. In addition, pictures of the California wilderness tended to banish lingering worries about the fleeting nature of the gold rush and the viability of the society left in its wake. This part of the exhibition will feature several of Albert Bierstadt's most beautiful paintings of California and a selection of Carleton Watkins' mammoth plate views of the Yosemite Valley, as well as numerous other works.

Spanish Arcadia - The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made a journey to California a viable and patriotic alternative for Americans considering a grand tour of Europe. During this period, idyllic images of the nation's "Mediterranean Shores" beckoned to viewers in the east and midwest and promised Americans they could experience the beauties of Italy and Spain within the frontiers of their own nation. Local artists, taking their inspiration from Thomas Cole, Sanford Gifford and others, showed California missions as the New World counterparts of the Roman forum and the ruined temples at Agrigento and Paestum. These artists also composed nostalgic visions of old rancho days in California, picturing bold vaqueros and dark-eyed señoritas who passed their days in the pleasurable indolence of fandangos and fiestas. In addition to mission paintings by Juan B. Wandesford, Henry Chapman Ford and Edwin Deakin, this segment of the exhibition will include Charles Christian Nahl's splendid portrayal of early California, Fandango.

Urban Visions - Images of metropolitan life in California completed the visual package offered to those in the east and midwest. Views of San Francisco's well-kept neighborhoods, bustling markets and stately government buildings demonstrated that the state's abundance was processed through social mechanisms that made it available to ordinary Americans, not just those willing to risk a prospecting venture in the goldfields. With an eye to the great cities of the east, artists in California presented San Francisco as the Pacific counterpart of Boston, New York and Chicago. Their paintings described the mansions of the Nob Hill elite, the hundreds of ships anchored in the San Francisco Bay and grand hotels ready to accommodate visitors. They also portrayed the exotic pleasures of Chinatown, alluding to San Francisco's important role as the nation's gateway to Cathay and the lucrative Pacific trade. "Birds eye" prints and photographic panoramas of the city gave viewers the impression that the metropolitan network stretched as far as the eye could see, communicating to investors, vacationers and prospective immigrants that California had opened its doors for business and was ready to deliver everything that had been promised to the American public. This final portion of the exhibition will present works by Ernest Narjot, Eadweard Muybridge, Arthur Mathews, Theodore Wores, Arnold Genthe and others.

Pacific Arcadia: Images of California, 1600-1915 has been organized by Claire Perry, Curator of American Art at the Cantor Arts Center. Perry is also the author of the 300-page book that will accompany the exhibition, to be published jointly by Oxford University Press and the Cantor Center. The book will be richly illustrated, with one hundred and fifty plates, sixty of which will be in full color.

The exhibition and its national tour are made possible by Ford Motor Company. Other generous gifts supporting the exhibition were received from the Honorable Laurence W. Lane, Dr. A. Jess Shenson, and the Bernard Osher Foundation.

Docent tours of this exhibition will be offered on Wednesday at 12:15 and Saturday at 2:00 pm. For more information, please call the Educational Services Department at (650) 723-3469. Please call at least a week in advance to arrange accommodations for a disability.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 8/24/10


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